Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cord cutters and Pro Sports Moving in Opposite Directions

Scissors cutting TV cable
We contemplated it for a long time but we only recently did it. We cut the cable TV cord. This involves little sacrifice since OTA (over-the-air) TV is now digital quality and there is so much video entertainment  available via the Internet. Sure there are some good cable-only channels but there there is still more video entertainment than we have time to watch anyway. The savings are substantial: About $120 per month including tax for basic cable to 4 TV's.

There is only one major adjustment to be made as any cord-cuttter knows: Sports. My wife has been a Braves fan for a long time and its been getting progressively harder to get their games and now it's impossible without a cable TV subscripiton. It used to be that virtually all of their games were available on basic cable and then it moved up to less widely distributed channels.

I naively thought we could solve this for a reasonable price by subscribing to MLB TV online. Major League Baseball is ahead of other sports in offering direct-to-the-fan TV. There is no NFL equivalent. What I didn't know is that MLB protects its cable partners by blocking access to games in the sports fans home viewing area, regardless of the game location. I would not have been surprised if they were protecting broadcast games but I didn't expect them to protect Sports South, or whatever channel it is that carries the Braves.
What Forbes calls "sky high local cable deals" have been been great for players and their salaries. Not so great for the baseball fans.

We found it out the hard way after we'd paid the $129 for Premium MLB.TV. We simply couldn't watch the Braves home opener, blacked out despite the fact that it was in Milwaukee. Fortunately, MLB.TV's cancellation policy permits cancellation within 5 days on a first purchase.

MLB.com, I found out, rivals the old AOL for difficulty of cancellation. Anyone who remembers AOL remembers the hilarity of trying to cancel after the "free trial" period was over. It was like The Hotel California. You can check in any time you like but you can never leave. MLB seems to be copying their business model. Even after I found the cancellation policy, it was hard to find out how to cancel. I declined to email in my cancellation since I wouldn't have a record of it. The toll free number they provided is a general purpose number, with several menus to misdirect you. None of them offered helpfully to accept my cancellation. The closest choices were "about your MLB TV account" and then "billing". I wanted to stop the billing so that's what I chose. After several busy signals, I finally got through. After holding several minutes, I navigated the menu as best I could and spoke to a very nice lady who helped me through the cancellation during a ten minute call where she put me on hold several times where I was treated to cheesy unfamiliar (probably royalty-free) music. She gave me a confirmation number but at no point said that my money would be refunded. So I offered: "Just to be clear, since I'm cancelling so soon, I'm going to get a full refund, right?"
She paused awkwardly and said: "Well, I'm not sure but you'll receive an email about your cancellation within "five to seven business days". Wow.

Likewise, we'll be watching fewer NFL games this year. Monday Night Football moved to ESPN some years ago and then Thursday Night Football went to The NFL Network. Going forward, if it's not on free TV we won't see it.

With more and more people cutting the cord, and so many of those cord cutters being the young people advertisers favor, change could be in the wind in the near future. Maybe the NFL and MLB will offer more direct-to-consumer ala carte subscripitions via cable without protective blackouts.

Some of my friends consider our choice to cut the cord a problem since we will see less sports, but the way I see it, the problem belongs to professional sports franchise owners. They are the ones that decided to make their product less accessible. Maybe the trend will continue and eventually, what is now mainstream sport will become like boxing where it's all only available via pay-per-view event. If so, we'll miss them but we have plenty of ways to spend our time.